Diane Miessler: No-till gardening & the soil food web
June 8, 2018
I had an epiphany back when I was 22, some four decades ago, while sitting at the Cal State Library turnstile making $1.70 an hour. A remarkable book landed in my return bin: "The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book," a seminal piece that rocked my world.
Although the title is a bit of an exaggeration (I do, actually, work in my garden), the idea was revolutionary: quit turning over your soil and instead mulch the dickens out of it.
I haven't tilled or turned my soil since that day, so it's painful for me to see a tidy expanse of bare dirt with vegetables growing in it.
Plants like the company of other plants, and the inhabitants of healthy soil (microbes, worms, little bugs) are what feed your plants. All of them like moist, shaded dirt.
In her book, Stout suggested putting down layers of alfalfa hay, thickly enough to shade out weeds and then rot into rich compost. She found that this approach, in addition to being way easier than how most people gardened then (and, sadly, still do), also created rich, wormy soil that made her plants thrive.
Since then, Dr. Elaine Ingham "discovered" the soil food web (kind of like Columbus discovered America — it was really there all along) and described the complex universe of organisms that live in healthy soil and nurture plants. Those organisms are driven off or killed outright by chemical fertilizers, as well as by tilling.
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A different perspective
Imagine, if you will, that you're a worm or a fragile piece of mycorrhiza (mycorrhiza: a fungal strand that intertwines with plant roots — think hair extensions — and greatly extends their access to water and nutrients).
You're in your moist, dark home in the soil, minding your own business, when suddenly a shovel or rototiller literally turns your world upside down. That moist soil is broken up and exposed to drying air and sun, and you're either chopped up or forced to burrow down deeper to escape the drying air.
Meanwhile, the footsteps of the gardener compress the soil below you, creating hardpan that you can't get through. Bummer, right?
Now imagine your home is never churned up by tilling or digging. A think layer of mulch keeps the soil cool and moist, and creates a steady stream of food for you and your soil food web pals.
Your peaceful, shaded neighborhood is a great place to raise a family, so you create more microbes or worms or mycorrhizae.
Those worms loosen the soil and create rich worm castings. The sticky microbes hold nutrients in the soil around plant roots, and mycorrhizae grow through the soil, bringing plant roots the water and nutrients they need. You all work together to feed plants, form soil aggregates (the "crumb" in crumbly soil), and buffer pH to the plant's liking.
Soil organisms do this in exchange for sugary juice the plant exudes through its roots, for the very purpose of attracting those organisms. At least I think that's why plants exude sweets; they haven't actually told me this, but it's certainly a happy coincidence that plants and soil organisms work so well together to benefit the other.
Healthy soil is happy soil
Soil that's kept moist and sheltered soon fills up with the life that makes soil fertile.
Soil is not meant to be turned into powder by tilling. Even if you're tilling in organic matter, the very act of churning soil makes organic matter break down quickly, giving little long-term benefit. And it kills or mortally wounds the soil food web, which is what feeds your plants.
Think of a gray, dry, lifeless tilled field. Sad and dead, right? Then think of the soil you find under forest duff or a pile of leaves in your yard. That's what soil is supposed to look like.
Left to its own devices and given enough organic matter, nature will make rich soil. Nature's amazing like that.
Instead of turning your soil, try covering it with eight to 12 inches of mulch: straw, alfalfa hay (other kinds have seeds that can cause mischief down the road), leaves, chopped up garden waste, and grass clippings after they've dried a little.
At planting time, simply scoot the mulch out of the way and plant stuff like you always did. Then sit back and watch your garden explode. Figuratively speaking …
Diane Miessler is a nurse, science buff, permaculture designer, and compost goddess. Her book, "An Aging Hippie Chick's Guide to Worms, Germs, Beautiful Gardens," and "Afternoon Naps: How to Have a Sustainable Garden Without Making the Neighbors Hate You," will be published later this year. Contact her via her website at aginghippiechickgardening.com.
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